Tiananmen Square on Monday. Photo: EPA

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Wen Yunchao, one of the most prominent voices in China's dissident community, has been monitoring arrests and convictions in this year in China from New York City. His list of detentions shows how China's new Communist Party leadership under Xi Jinping is dealing with those who oppose party rule.

Wen’s records are incomplete - they don't include people arrested in connection with ethnic movements, those prosecuted for involvement in the religious group, Falun Gong, or secret arrests unknown to online activists. The information he has gathered comes from reports from human rights groups, social media and the dissident community. Many of the arrests could not be independently verified. Yet Wen insists his records show a growing trend of repression under Xi Jinping.

“What is different this year is that detentions have been particularly large in number and they have been particularly unrelenting,” said Wen, commonly known by his internet alias "Beifeng". The visiting scholar at the Institute for Study of Human Rights at Columbia University said the detentions started with "rights advocates miscalculating the new administration’s stance towards dissent".

In December last year, Xi raised hopes of some political reform when he pledged to uphold the constitution. China's constitution enshrines political rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, which until now are often ignored by Chinese courts or the party's security apparatus. 

Journalists with the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly gambled on Xi's sincerity in their annual New Year's editorial, arguing that Xi newly proclaimed slogan, the “Chinese Dream”, was a “dream of constitutional rule”.

Censors immediately replaced the editorial with dull flattery, prompting staff and sympathisers to publicly call for an end to censorship outside the newspaper’s office and on social media.

The “Southern Weekly incident” led some people to “miscalculate the trend,” said Wen. “This led some in Beijing to believe there is an opportunity to raise the bar and take to the street with placards,” he said.

"That’s when they began nabbing people,” added Wen. 

In March, China’s leadership handover ended with Xi Jinping, already the Communist Party’s general secretary and the head of the Central Military Commission, assuming the presidency.

A month later, reports of a secret circular by the party’s Central Committee appeared, in which local party cadres were told to be vigilant against subversive forces within Chinese society. Weeks later, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a internal notice in which it spurred prosecutors to go after political activities.

Wen said that a new pattern has emerged in which authorities detain activists and release them on bail. “It can usually be considered a warning,” he said. "Few of those released on bail are detained again." 

For Corinna-Barbara Francis, a long-time China researcher with Amnesty International, such releases reflected a “holding pattern” aimed at minimising social friction.

Francis said recent prosecutions resulted from the current administration’s “position of fear and concern”, whereas “more and more people are not as scared as they used to be”.

“There is a basic tension within the Communist Party about its survival, if they open up to political reform,” said Francis. “The irony is that there are more and more ‘liberals’, people with enlightened ideas, in China, knowledgable about the law, the constitution and political system. Yet they are caught in a structure which no one seems to have the capacity to shift.”

Wen said he thought political reforms have become less likely. “Internally, momentum has stalled", he said. "Those outside the system have lost patience.” Wen, who started out as a journalist with Guangdong TV, said he has no plans to return to his home country.